Desire Under the Elms

by

Eugene O’Neill

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Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Desire, Revenge, and Tragedy Theme Icon
Farming, Labor, and Poverty Theme Icon
Gender Theme Icon
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Desire Under the Elms, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion, Faith, and Suffering Theme Icon

Desire Under the Elms shows how faith in God can bring about suffering. Aging patriarch Ephraim Cabot (who goes by Cabot) is a devout Christian man who often calls on God to guide his choices. Yet Cabot routinely makes choices that end up making him unhappy. He believes that he needs to live a grueling and laborious life as a 19th-century farmer in order to please God, and he rejects his sons Peter and Simeon as sinful for seeking easier lives. Cabot also believes that God wants him to remarry for the third time, and he ends up marrying a young woman named Abbie who despises him. She ultimately has an illicit relationship with Cabot’s youngest son (Eben) and kills her newborn baby, leaving Cabot lonely and miserable. In the end, Cabot resigns himself to a lonely and miserable fate, believing that this is God will. The play thus shows how religious faith can sometimes misguide people into making themselves needlessly suffer.

Cabot believes that exhausting farm labor is somehow godly. This belief fuels him to keep laboring, despite how unhappy it makes him, suggesting that religious faith can push people to tolerate unnecessary suffering in their lives. Cabot notes that he could have picked more fertile land to farm on, but he believes that “God’s hard! Not easy! […] I made thin’s grow out o’ nothin’—like the will o’ God, like the servant o’ His hand.” With this, he reveals that he thinks an easy life is somehow sinful and dishonorable, suggesting that his faith pushes him into living a much more difficult life than he needs to. And as a result, he and his family spend decades of their lives toiling on rough terrain, receiving little in return for their backbreaking labor. Eventually, Cabot’s sons Simeon and Peter abandon the grueling life on their farm to seek their fortunes in California (the play takes place in the 19th century, around the time of the California Gold Rush). Cabot believes that his sons’ “lust for Gold” is “sinful,” reinforcing the idea that faith can make people reject more comfortable or enjoyable lifestyles.

Cabot’s faith motivates him to make choices that end up causing him great unhappiness, suggesting that his belief in God is more of a hindrance than a help in his life. Despite how lonely Cabot is, he’s cruel to his sons because he thinks that they’re “soft” for not wanting to abide by God’s will and slave away on the farm. His sons end up either abandoning him or turning against him, leaving him utterly alone. Cabot’s faith effectively drives him to behave in ways that push people away from him, making him isolated and unhappy. In contrast, Cabot’s sons Simeon and Peter—who scorn Cabot’s devout attitude—leave the farm with an overwhelming sense of joy, freedom, and hope. Their lightheartedness is a stark contrast to Cabot’s misery, suggesting that they are actually better off and more fulfilled than Cabot, despite their lack of faith.

Furthermore, after Cabot’s second wife, Maw, dies, he decides to marry a third wife, Abbie. Cabot believes that this is God’s will, even though the marriage ends up bringing betrayal and murder into his home when Abbie seduces his son Eben, and bears (and then kills) her newborn child. Simeon notes that Cabot left to find a wife thinking that he was “ridin’ out t’ learn God’s message,” yet Abbie’s arrival on the farm only brings Cabot unhappiness, suggesting that Cabot’s trust in his faith is misplaced because it drives him to choices that make him miserable. It’s also clear from the outset that Abbie despises Cabot and is only interested in inheriting the farm. Cabot’s belief that it’s his religious destiny to have a wife clouds his judgement, making him overlook the fact that Abbie is manipulating him. For Cabot’s entire life, he’s longed to escape a deep loneliness within himself—yet he resigns himself to dying alone while slaving away on his farm, because he thinks “God’s hard an’ lonesome” and believes that he must be too. This belief drives Cabot to live out his remaining days miserable and alone, emphasizing how faith can do more harm than good in a person’s life, driving them to make choices that leave them unhappy.

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Religion, Faith, and Suffering ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion, Faith, and Suffering appears in each scene of Desire Under the Elms. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion, Faith, and Suffering Quotes in Desire Under the Elms

Below you will find the important quotes in Desire Under the Elms related to the theme of Religion, Faith, and Suffering.
Part 2: Scene 2 Quotes

I got weak—despairful—they was so many stones. They was a party leavin’, givin’ up, goin’ West. I jined ‘em. We tracked on ‘n’ on. We come t’ broad medders, plains, whar the soil was black an’ rich as gold. Nary a stone. Easy. Ye’d on’y to plow an’ sow an’ then set an’ smoke yer pipe an’ watch thin’s grow. I could o’ been a rich man—but somethin’ in me fit me an’ fit me—the voice o’ God sayin’: “This hain’t wuth nothin’ t’ Me. Git ye back t’ hum!” I got afeerd o’ that voice an’ I lit out back t’ hum here, leavin’ my claim an’ crops t’ whoever’d a mind t’ take ‘em. Ay-eh. I actooly give up what was rightful mine! God’s hard, not easy!

Related Characters: Ephraim Cabot (speaker), Abbie Putnam
Related Symbols: Stones
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

I lived with the boys. They hated me ‘cause I was hard. I hated them ‘cause they was soft. They coveted the farm without knowin’ what it meant. It made me bitter ‘n wormwood. It aged me—them coveting what I’d made fur mine. Then this spring the call come—the voice o’ God cryin’ in my wilderness, in my lonesomeness—t’ go out an’ seek an’ find! […] I sought ye an’ I found ye! Yew air my Rose o’ Sharon!

Related Characters: Ephraim Cabot (speaker), Abbie Putnam, Simeon, Peter, Eben
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Scene 1 Quotes

Ye're all hoofs! Git out o’ my road! Give me room! I’ll show ye dancin’. Ye’re all too soft!

Related Characters: Ephraim Cabot (speaker), Fiddler
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Let's celebrate the old skunk gittin’ fooled! We kin have some fun now he’s went.

Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Scene 3 Quotes

I kin hear His voice warnin’ me agen t’ be hard an’ stay on my farm. […] It’s agoin’ t’ be lonesomer now than ever it war afore-an’ I’m gittin’ old […] Waal—what d’ ye want? God’s lonesome, hain’t He? God’s hard an’ lonesome!

Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis: